‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

In 2010, the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh staged “Brundibar.” Wikimedia Commons

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed – in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen – Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger – the last surviving member of the original cast – will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

The nearly 85-year-old – whose schedule would defeat most people half her age – speaks frequently all over the world. She soon will set off for Boise, Idaho, having just returned from addressing the Parliament of Scotland as well as several universities there. Before that, she was in Tacoma. She also is preparing a trip to Paris and Normandy, where “Brundibar” will be performed, and has invitations from Brazil and Argentina.

Ela Weissberger

“I can’t promise that I’ll be there, but I’ll talk about the murder of Jewish children as long as I can,” she said. “They were the most beautiful, wonderful children.

“People don’t understand that there’s such a small group of survivors, especially from this children’s opera. They want me to talk to young people. They can’t believe how much I remember.”

Recalling her days in the camp, which began when she was 11, Ms. Weissberger said that her best teacher was Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist from the Bauhaus who managed to save thousands of Terezin children’s paintings, which were discovered after the war.

“She told us, you are not numbers, you have a name, and she allowed us to put that on the paintings,” Ms. Weissberger said.

She said that she has a “conflict” with playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner, who, with illustrator Maurice Sendak, adapted the opera in 2006. “He did a translation of the opera, but he finished it completely opposite what we were singing for,” she said.

The opera is a fairy tale about a young brother and sister, who, with the help of a cat, a dog, a bird, and the children of the village, defeat an evil organ grinder named Brundibar.

It ends with a victory song.

“The Nazis did not know that the victory song had a double meaning,” she said. “In our eyes, Brundibar was Hitler, and we wanted a victory over a terrible man.

“We were originally 15,000 children, and only 100 of us survived. It is by a miracle that I am here to talk about it. I was saved. I think I speak in the voices of those who didn’t make it.

“We enjoyed singing a song of defiance. We didn’t have to wear our Jewish star when we were singing ‘Brundibar.’ We weren’t marked. We had a little bit of freedom.” She still has that star, which she regards as “lucky.”

But Kushner added a line to the opera, she said. He makes Brundibar scream “I’m coming back.”

“I’m fighting to get it off there,” she said. “We don’t want him to come back.”

Ms. Weissberger said her speech “is in my heart. I lost a lot of friends. But my dream is coming true. The whole world has a day to remember the million and a half Jewish children who were murdered.”

She now has very few items from Terezin. She gave most of her things to museums. But she has one possession that she will not give away.

“I inherited the tallis of Rabbi Richard Feder,” who was also sent to Terezin, she said. “I got it from him. He was a very special person.”

She noted that Rabbi Feder – a fellow survivor – has developed a special order that he follows when he lights the six candles in memory of the 6 million lost in the Shoah.

“I have said in thousands of JCCs what Rabbi Feder said,” Ms. Weissberger recalled. “First for babies and children; second for mothers and fathers; third for grandparents; fourth for relatives; fifth for friends; and sixth for soldiers from America, Russia, and England who gave their lives to save some lives in the camps.” She said she explained that order at a candle-lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C., last year.

“One of the soldiers there [who helped free Dachau] was crying. He said ‘Ela, I want to tell you that this is the first time somebody [lit a candle] for my friends who lost their lives.'”

Ms. Weissberger said that she survived the camp by chance. She had sneaked out to visit her uncle, and missed the last transport out of the camp. It was destined for Auschwitz.

She said that she always finishes her speaking engagements by talking about her friends, translating a poem, “You and I,” written by a friend at the camp. It concludes with the lines, “You and I/Shall never forget.” She is doing her best to make sure that the world also remembers.

Emma Brondolo, director of the Young People’s Chorus at the JCC Thurnauer School of Music, said the children who will perform a portion of the opera at the Yom Hashoah ceremony understand the significance of the piece.

“We have discussed the opera’s history, who the original performers were, and the ways that this opera functioned in the Nazi camp,” she said. “We had a very long discussion about it at the beginning, and even more discussions as we learned different parts of the opera. Students have made great connections and asked sometimes difficult questions about how the Jews might have felt performing this for the Nazis and about the power of music and self-expression in the face of insurmountable adversity.

“‘Brundibar’ is a very special opera because it gives students a connection to a painful part of Jewish history, and it talks about real life contemporary issues, such as poverty, bullying, community, and hope,” she said.

She added that the idea for the performance came from Dorothy Roffman, the Thurnauer School’s founder and director. As it happened, Ms. Roffman’s daughter, Sharon, had created a program in Florida “that connected an understanding of the Holocaust and current issues involved in bullying. As part of the students’ learning experience, the school’s drama department worked with Sharon on a production of ‘Brundibar.'”

When considering how the Thurnauer school could contribute to this year’s Yom Hashoah program, “Dorothy immediately thought of ‘Brundibar,'” Ms. Brandolo said.

Tani Foger of Englewood, the JCC’s Yom Hashoah program chair since 2006, noted that the ceremony will include the presentation of the Abe Oster Holocaust Remembrance Award to a teen for composing an original piece of music that commemorates the Holocaust. The evening also will include a candle-lighting ceremony led by five Holocaust survivors and their families. The sixth candle will be for all survivors who are there.

One benefit of the evening is that the 50 young people singing selections from the opera “will come face to face with a survivor – perhaps for their first or only time,” Ms. Foger said. If in the future they come across a denier, they’ll be able to say unequivocally that there was a Terezin. There are so many benefits beyond what the kids can understand now.”

The chorus will perform the entire opera on June 18 at the Sandra O. Gold Founder’s Day Concert.

The Oster award, Ms. Foger said, is presented every year, and every year it recognizes a different art form – poetry, prose, art, or multimedia. Because this year’s ceremony will include an opera, the award is music-based. The winner will be announced on the day of the performance.

“As the generation of survivors is fading, and as Holocaust deniers are increasing, it’s a vital experience for kids in the audience to see any survivors in our midst and for us to hear their stories and give them respect, acknowledging that we can hear and see them,” Ms. Foger said.

“These children can be a link in the chain.” The same opera performed in a concentration camp is now “being performed in peaceful, loving surroundings by other Jewish children. It’s like an affirmation of what [Ela] went through.”

What: Ela Weissberger will speak at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades Yom Hashoah commemoration. The evening also will include the performance of selections from “Brundibar” and a candle-lighting ceremony.

When: April 16, 7-9 p.m.

Where: At the JCC, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly

For more information: Call Ruth Yung at (201) 408-1418 or email her at ryung@jccotp.org.

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